Underdogs lead as Russia's Premier League reaches halfway stage

With exactly half of the season's 30 games played, and the country's top soccer sides struggling to find form, some unfamiliar faces occupy the leading positions in Russia's Premier League.
MOSCOW, July 28 (RIA Novosti) - With exactly half of the season's 30 games played, and the country's top soccer sides struggling to find form, some unfamiliar faces occupy the leading positions in Russia's Premier League.

In first place after their record-breaking seven-game winning streak at the start of the season are Rubin, from Kazan, capital of the Republic of Tatarstan. The club, founded in 1958, spent the entire Soviet period in the lower divisions and were only promoted to the Russian Premier League in 2003, finishing third in their debut season.

The club, sponsored by local power utility Tatenergo and the industrial and investment company Taif, splashed out during the close season, bringing in a number of Russian and foreign players, including the 34-year-old Savo Milosevic, the former Yugoslavian and Serbian international and one-time Aston Villa striker.

However, Milosevic has spent most of his time on the bench, and it has been another signing, the former CSKA and Paris Saint-Germain midfielder, Sergei Semak, who has orchestrated the side's rise to the top of the table. The 32-year-old's performances did not go unnoticed by the national side's trainer, with Guus Hiddink first recalling Semak to the team, and then handing him the captain's armband for Euro 2008.

Rubin drew 0-0 on Saturday with CSKA Moscow, the club's fifth draw in a row.

"Judging by the amount of points we have, everything's going OK," Semak told the Sport-Express paper on Monday.

In second place are Amkar, hailing from Perm in the Urals. The club are the easternmost European team to play in a top division. Two other Russian Premier League sides, Vladivostok's Luch Energiya and Tomsk's Tom are located further east, but are in the Asian half of Russia.

Amkar were formed in 1953, their name a combination of the first letters of the Russian words for 'ammoniac' and 'carbamide' - the chemicals produced by the factory they originally represented. The side only turned professional in 1995, and in 2004 won promotion to the Premier League. After narrowly avoiding relegation last season, no one was expecting Amkar to push for honors this year, but with a squad of hard-working, largely unknown players they have ground out a series of results that has left them in contention for the title and a Champions League place.

Third place is occupied by the most famous of the top three - Dynamo Moscow. However, after more than a decade of under-achievement, despite massive investment in the club by their previous sponsors, the side's long-suffering fans were not expecting a title bid from their team. The club is currently financed by Uzbek tycoon Alisher Usmanov's Metalloinvest company. Although Usmanov is also a major shareholder in the English side Arsenal, he has described Dynamo as his "first love".

Dynamo defeated current Russian Premier League and UEFA Cup champions Zenit St. Petersburg 1-0 in Moscow on Saturday, an 88th minute goal leaving the side from Russia's 'northern capital' in 11th place, 11 points behind Rubin, albeit with two games in hand.

Russian soccer's other traditional giants have also struggled this season, with perennial 1990s champions Spartak Moscow losing 3-1 to Terek Grozny and 5-1 to CSKA Moscow in recent weeks as the club has been ripped apart by internal rows. The club's owner, LUKoil executive Leonid Fedun, recently said he would give the club away "for nothing" to any investor able to present a sound business plan for the team. Spartak are currently in fifth place.

Despite the recent 5-1 win over Spartak, 2005 UEFA Cup winners CSKA Moscow have also misfired for much of the season, and the departure of free-scoring Brazilian striker Jo to Manchester City could prove critical as the season continues. CSKA are currently in seventh place, and their trainer, Valery Gazzayev, has said he will leave the club at the end of this season, citing "tiredness".

The emergence of new clubs and the problems faced by the established ones means that the Russian Premier League is enjoying its most open season since it was founded in 1992. Global interest in what is now, according to UEFA, the sixth strongest league in Europe is also on the rise, especially following the national team's attacking performances at Euro 2008. The Russian squad at the tournament featured only one foreign-based player, and its stars, most notably Zenit's Andrei Arshavin, have become targets for leading European clubs. In a sign of the growing popularity of the Russian Premier League, Spanish television showed the Dynamo vs Zenit match live on Saturday.

With the season due to finish in November, there is no clear favorite for the title. Although there is a long way to go, both Rubin and Amkar have a real chance of finishing in the top three, and with Russia set to provide three sides for the 2008/2009 Champions League, some big name European clubs could find themselves flying to some very exotic locations next season.

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